Picture: 123RF/DOT SHOCK
Picture: 123RF/DOT SHOCK

The SA wine industry, which heaved a sigh of relief after the government made a U-turn on exports, says it is expecting an 8.2% increase in this year’s harvest despite the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The bumper harvest could help the sector maintain its market share overseas, which was threatened by the government decision to halt wine exports. 

A 1,349,883-tonne, 2020 wine grape crop is expected, according to the latest estimate of the SA Wine Industry Information & Systems. This would be 8.2% larger than the 2019 harvest.

An 8% increase from last year is a remarkable feat for the industry considering the challenges it faced in recent years, including a debilitating drought and a marked decline in the number of producers. 

SA’s wine industry, a big economic driver contributing R36bn to the fiscus, was recently left reeling after the government banned wine exports and local liquor sales during the lockdown as part of strict measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. However, under the level 4 lockdown regulations, wine exports are permitted while local sales remain prohibited.  

Wine producers body Vinpro warned in April that in addition to the immediate loss of revenue, an export ban would damage the industry’s reputation of consistent supply, and compromise access to markets in the future.

Fears were that the local industry could lose out to competitors such as the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Bottle stores in most of Europe and the US are allowed to trade as essential-service providers.

Siobhan Thompson, CEO of industry body Wines of SA, said on Tuesday that the industry is grateful and relieved to be able to resume exports. “This finally enables us to showcase our exceptional new 2020 vintage wines to trade, media and consumers about the world.” 

SA is the ninth-biggest wine producer, producing about 3.3% of the world’s wine. The wine industry employs nearly 300,000 people.

According to the SA wine industry’s annual Wine Harvest Report, the 2020 wine grape crop will bring exceptional wines to consumers, after favourable conditions throughout the season.

“Though it’s always important to take our diversity over 10 wine grape growing regions into account, the industry had a very good season overall, which we believe will bring great quality wines to consumers,” said Conrad Schutte, consultation service manager at Vinpro.

Weather was generally favourable, and bunch numbers looked promising early in the season, but windy conditions during the sensitive berry growth stages resulted in smaller berries and a lighter crop in some areas. The season has also been characterised by great variation between vineyard blocks in areas with dry conditions.

Though the harvesting season started about two weeks earlier than usual, the unexpected lockdown from March 26 created a scurry among many producers to harvest the last grapes of the season and complete winemaking

Said Schutte, “With uncertainties during the announcement of the lockdown, some producers decided to harvest the grapes without prejudice, just to get them to the cellar, while others waited for optimal ripeness to ensure exceptional quality.”

Update: May 5 2020 
This article has been updated throughout.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za